Randy's Corner Deli Library

13 May 2009

Can Israel's Electoral System Be Fixed?

Can Israel's Electoral System Be Fixed?

Try as he might, David Ben-Gurion could not reform Israel’s electoral system, which gives extraordinary power to small parties. Today, a new generation of reformers takes on the challenge.

By Jeremy Gillick

There was a reason that Israel’s wild-haired, hardheaded founding father and first prime minister named himself Ben-Gurion, Hebrew for son of a young lion. Born David Grun, the charismatic Polish-born leader with a forceful personality and a streak of realpolitik was accustomed to confronting difficult problems—and having his way with them. One of the greatest challenges he faced was transforming the fledgling country’s political system.

The electoral process aroused in Ben-Gurion more anger and annoyance than any other institution he took part in creating. “In our electoral system,” he said in 1954, “the citizen has no right to choose his representatives. The candidates are selected not by the voter but by a central party committee. Our ballot system is a farce and worse, it is an abuse of democracy.” Four years later, in a speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, he contended that the country employed a “bad democratic system” whose electoral procedures were “rotten and destructive.” 

His words were prophetic. Israel has undergone immense change since its creation in 1948. Its population has grown ten-fold, its borders have shifted, its kibbutz movement and socialist orientation have faded and have been replaced by religious settlements and an ardor for high-tech, and it has made more enemies and fewer friends than it wished for. But almost 40 years after Ben-Gurion left politics, the Jewish state’s electoral system—perhaps the only thing that Israel’s first generation might have expected to change—remains largely untouched. 

Alongside the electoral systems of Italy and Weimar Germany—the latter of which helped smooth the way for the Nazis’ ascendance—Israel’s purely proportionate system will likely go down in history as one of the world’s worst. Unlike the United States or European countries, which are divided into voting districts, all of Israel is treated as a single district with 120 representatives. In contrast to Germany or Turkey, where a political party can gain a seat in parliament if it garners five and 10 percent of the national vote, respectively, a party in Israel is guaranteed a place in the Knesset if it obtains a mere two percent. Since no single party ever wins a majority of Knesset seats, large parties depend on support from small ones to form coalitions, giving the small—sometimes fringe—parties? disproportionate influence. Israel has seen over 30 governments, each comprised of 10 to 15 parties, in its 61 years of existence. 

“The root cause of Israel’s institutional weakness,” says Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute, an Israeli policy center, “is an electoral system that generates unstable and fragmented governments.” It also creates incentives for acting and thinking in the short term, he says, when Israel needs a leadership that can think broadly and plan for the future. “It’s a potentially tragic mismatch.” 

The newest government, led by Likud veteran Benjamin Netanyahu and his sprawling, mainly right-wing coalition, is as good an example as any. Twelve parties were elected to the Knesset—Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism, United Arab List, National Union, Hadash, New Movement-Meretz, The Jewish Home and Balad. Six joined the ruling coalition, which boasts 30 ministers, making it the largest and messiest in Israeli history. “They used to talk about a kitchen cabinet,” says Harvard law professor and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz. “This is a mega-mansion cabinet. It’s unwieldy and unworkable.”

The day after Netanyahu’s government was sworn in, the distinguished American scholar of the Middle East, 92-year-old Bernard Lewis, addressed the issue in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. “It is becoming increasingly clear,” he wrote, “that electoral reform of some kind is imperative if Israeli democracy is to survive.”


Gideon Doron, a 64-year-old professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, has been fighting for electoral reform for over three decades. Last year, frustrated by the lack of progress, he came up with a quintessentially Israeli ploy to both mock and rally support against the status quo. Taking advantage of Israel’s liberal electoral qualifications, he founded his own political party, “The Israelis,” a one-man boondoggle focused on a single issue: electoral reform. 

Doron’s party was one of 33 on the ballot in February (an unprecedented 43 parties registered, but 10 chose not to run), and it received fewer than 1,000 votes—not enough to capture a seat in the Knesset. But Doron didn’t run to win; he sought “to get reform to the top of the public agenda.” “The registration fee was $20,000,” he says, “but the TV and publicity—that was free.”

The campaign to reform Israel’s electoral system is as old as the country—but the system itself is older. “The electoral system that we have is a reflection of the 19th century idea of how to represent as many Jews as possible,” says Doron. “The Zionist Congress wanted to create the image that it represented Jews from all over Europe, that it spoke for all Jews.” It had no other choice, he explains, if it wanted to enlist support—and collect money—from international Jewry.

As a result, the Jewish Agency, the Jews’ de facto government in Palestine before 1948, adopted a system that was as inclusive as possible—one based on proportional representation, national party lists and a low threshold for parliamentary representation. “Under pre-1948 circumstances this was a reasonable system,” theJerusalem Post columnist and Shalem Center lecturer Amotz Asa-El wrote recently in the publication Azure, “since the Yishuv [the community of Jews who lived in Palestine before 1948] was minuscule, its elected representatives were not sovereign, and the representation of myriad ideologies and communities, as allowed by the proportional system, seemed both just and practical.” 

Not long after Israel declared independence,  its provisional government began to plan for a convention to create a constitution, which would, among other things, establish rules for elections. It appointed a three-member committee to determine a procedure for electing delegates to the convention. One member was Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency and leader of the dominant, left-wing party, Mapai. Ben-Gurion admired the British system, which he called “the most efficient political system in the world.” In particular, he was impressed that the British had managed to maintain their “political freedom even during the storm of war.” More broadly, he felt that it struck a healthy balance between representation and governability. “Two-party rule,” he said, was “absolutely necessary.” 

His fellow committee members were Yitzhak Gruenbaum, a fiery Polish-born journalist and politician affiliated with the liberal, free-market-oriented General Zionist Party; and Pinchas Rosen, a German immigrant who founded the New Aliyah Party in 1942 and later joined the centrist Progressive Party. As members of small parties, the natural beneficiaries of the pre-state system, Gruenbaum and Rosen were less interested in the British system. In fact, they were disinclined to push for change at all. 

The 1948 War was a boon to the small party representatives. With battles raging, a consensus emerged that the only viable choice was to preserve the existing system. “The opponents of district elections [including Rosen and Gruenbaum] clearly had their hidden agenda,” says Asa-El, but “there really was a diplomatic need to hold an election with no delay.” David Bar-Rav-Hai, chairman of the election committee at the time, said that creating a new system would have required “complicated preparations” and thus would have been “impossible to carry out within a short period of time.” 

Elections for the constitutional convention were held in January 1949. But in February, Ben-Gurion decided to hold off on a constitution—“he had to prioritize his objectives,” says Doron—and the convention declared itself Israel’s first Knesset. Mapai won 46 out of 120 seats, and the United Religious Front—a group of religious parties that would become his main coalition partner—16. The Religious Front opposed the idea of a constitution and thereby the establishment of a permanent electoral system. “They said they had a constitution already: the Bible,” says Doron. And like the other small parties, they weren’t keen on changing the electoral system at their own expense. 

While Ben-Gurion was prepared to temporarily forego a constitution for the sake of national unity, he was determined to change the electoral process at any price. “I do not think that the appearance of 21 competing [party] lists in the Knesset elections in this little country of six or seven hundred thousand inhabitants is the expression of democracy or social maturity,” he told the Knesset in 1949. “As a Jew, I am ashamed of this sick phenomenon.” 

As Ben-Gurion saw it, the small parties not only inhibited his ability to govern; without their support—which would have required their willfully relinquishing power—reforms would be virtually impossible to pass. In effect, they had him in a stranglehold. 

Try as he might, Ben-Gurion couldn’t break free from their grip. A 1954 effort to raise the minimum threshold—thereby limiting the number of parties in government—and switch to a British-style system drew little support, and the pre-state electoral system was enshrined in what are called Israel’s Basic Laws. In 1964, following his second dramatic resignation, Ben-Gurion considered forming a broad-based party focused solely on electoral reform, but backed out when his Mapai colleague Levi Eshkol, the reigning prime minister, assured several small parties that he would block any attempts at reform. A year later, Ben-Gurion broke away from Mapai to form Rafi—one of its central aims was electoral reform—but his efforts were thwarted once again.

As long as Mapai, later Labor, was the dominant party, winning around 40 percent of the vote, Israel’s electoral system worked reasonably well. “Mapai was ruling quite comfortably with the religious parties and that was stable,” says Doron. But disgust at government corruption on the heels of the 1967 war changed Israel’s political landscape, ushering in a strong and dynamic opposition. When the right-wing Likud party, led by former Irgun leader Menachem Begin, burst onto the scene in 1977, stability was undermined. 

Under Israel’s Basic Laws, the party that won the most Knesset seats was not guaranteed the prime minister position. The result was that the individual deemed by the smaller parties as most capable of forming a coalition won. Instead of devolving into a two-party system, as Ben-Gurion had once hoped, the smaller parties became kingmakers in Israeli politics. 

Ten electoral reform bills were introduced between 1958 and 1988 and, according toAzure’s Asa-El, were shot down by religious parties. The 1984 attempt came closest: Likud and Labor together gained about two thirds of the Knesset’s 120 seats; because neither could form a coalition, they agreed to share power in a national unity government. Many members of both parties agreed to reform the electoral system in order to prevent the sort of near-paralysis that the election had caused. But, as Asa-El writes, the religious parties “threatened to sever all ties with the Likud once and for all should the party support electoral reform,” and the Likud members quickly backed down. 

In 1985, responding to growing public outrage, Uriel Reichman, then the dean of Tel Aviv University’s law school, started a campaign to create an Israeli constitution, warning that Israel was “on a track to suicide.” One of his suggestions, that Israelis should vote for prime ministers directly, was adopted in 1992 (along with a motion to raise the minimum threshold from 1.5 to 2 percent), and implemented in 1996. Intended to give the prime minister more power in the coalition-building process, the move backfired. 

The reform prompted the electorate to split its vote between a prime minister and a party that often had a narrow agenda. The big parties began to disintegrate. In 1996, the largest, Likud, won a mere 34 seats—the fewest in Israeli history to that point—and in 1999, Labor won the election with only 26. Together, Likud and Labor controlled 45 out of 120 seats. “What we had in ’96 and ’99 was sectarian politics,” says Doron, who opposed the reforms. Starting in 1996, he says, citizens voted increasingly along cultural and religious lines, making it “very difficult to form a coalition and to rule.” Widely acknowledged to have been a failure, the reforms were abolished. 

Proponents of change may have suffered a major setback, but their cause continued to gain steam. In 2003, Isaac Parviz Nazarian, an Iranian-born businessman based in Los Angeles, founded the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) to promote electoral reform. It was one of several recent American initiatives “to save the Israelis from themselves,” says Doron, and it paved the way for the creation of the Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Government (the President’s Commission) in 2005. Led by Menachem Magidor, president of Hebrew University, the commission recommended that half of the Knesset’s members be elected regionally, that the cabinet’s size be limited to 18 and that the minimum threshold be raised to 2.5 percent. 

In 2008, members of Labor and Likud co-sponsored an ambitious bill written by the Kadima Party’s Menachem Ben Sasson based on the commission’s recommendations. It was backed by three of the Knesset’s four largest parties—only Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu did not endorse the bill. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had granted veto power over changes to the Basic Law to the parties in his coalition. Shas promised to employ its veto, and the bill was shelved. 

By the time of the election this February, support for electoral reform had reached a fever pitch. “Today,” says Yuval Lipkin, a Kadima member and the head of CECI, “everybody understands that the political structure is not good.” Indeed, a recent CECI poll found that more than 60 percent of Israelis support the adoption of reform in line with the Commission’s plan. “If we do regional elections we’ll have two or three parties [in the coalition],” adds Lipkin. “This is the only way we can have stability.” 

Kadima reintroduced its electoral reform bill on the first day of the new Knesset, late in February. But at the time, Netanyahu was scrambling to form a coalition. Rather than risk alienating Shas or Yisrael Beiteinu, whose support he would need, Likud chose to nix the bill. Gideon Sa’ar, a leading Likud figure and one of the bill’s sponsors, laid the blame on the usual suspects. Shas, says Lipkin, “understands that they’ll have a problem with the new system.” 

Even if change can be pushed through, it’s unclear what it could achieve. Asher Arian, a fellow at the Israeli Democracy Institute, one of the earliest think tanks to agitate for electoral reform, points out that electoral reform in other countries has been unsuccessful. Italy, he says, which historically used a near-proportional electoral system and has been plagued by unstable governments, has enacted several major reforms. “They haven’t managed to solve their problems,” he says. “What this suggests is that the problem is not in the mechanism. The problem is in the issues facing the political system and/or the behavior of the individuals in the system.” 

Arian believes that change needs to occur incrementally. “Introducing districts will give people a stronger sense of connection to the system,” he says, and ensure that Knesset members are responsive to their constituents. “A reform that says the party that gets the largest vote will be the one who will form the government will help, and perhaps raising the minimum requirement to three or four percent will help, too.” 

Still, Arian worries that the hype around electoral reform is motivated by a belief that it will cause the country’s major problems to disappear. “I think it’s looking for a magical potion,” he says. Changing the system “will not make the Palestinians Zionists.” 

Gideon Doron, on the other hand, attributes “most of the problems in Israel” to the country’s political system. But he questions whether anything can be done to change it. “We are working very hard for reform, but I don’t think there will be a chance until there is a major crisis,” he says. “Like Lenin said, ‘it will get worse before it gets better.’” Until then, he says, the issue will stand alongside Iran and the global economic crisis as one of the “existential threats” to Israel. 

Doron’s analysis is shared by many American Jews who favor a two-state solution. Daniel Gordis, the vice president of the Shalem Center in Israel, suggests that the focus on electoral reform among American Jews is in some ways a reflection of their naively optimistic outlook. “Americans really believe that all conflicts have a solution,” he says. “If you say that the Palestinians simply don’t want to make peace, then there is no solution. So, they reason, the problem must be the political system. I think there’s an attempt here to give them some vestige of hope to hold on to without making the problem seem completely insolvable.” 

Gordis also believes that American Jews want Israel to model its political system on that of the United States. “They are very proud of their democracy,” he says, “and Americans who are looking to be proud of Israel think, if only Israel functioned more like America.” David Ben-Gurion, for his part, looked to Britain, not the United States, and he came up empty-handed. Whether or not the American or any other model proves easier to emulate, the challenge remains formidable. Those who believe that reform is possible may take comfort in Ben-Gurion’s famous words: “In Israel,” he said, “in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Jeremy Gillick is Moment’s Rabbi Harold S. White Fellow. His most recent article forMoment, “An Israeli Prescription for American Health Care,” was in the March/April issue.

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